The Nallur Kovil Festival: where tradition and devotion meet | Sunday Observer

The Nallur Kovil Festival: where tradition and devotion meet

The Northern Province has many kovils that have embellished her history. Divine veneration has dominated their lifestyle for centuries. Worship has united and sustained these communities. Central among these sacred abodes is the legendary Nallur Kovil. It remains a pious magnet that draws her devotees from many parts of the world. This kovil has a rich heritage. The Nallur Kovil will remain the most prominent landmark of Jaffna, a testament of endurance and pious diligence.

Being a Christian I have been intrigued by the intricate and ornate designs of ancient kovils. I have visited the Hindu kovil at Bamabalapitiya and Kotahena with a few Tamil friends. But Nallur was going to be an overwhelming experience. I visited this sanctum last year, in August.

The red and white wall of the kovil can be seen hundreds of yards away before you reach the venue. The Northern sun seems to gently light up the golden gopuram (tower) and the rays resonate all over. I raised my camera hoping to capture the front view and then realized how massive this structure was.


Ancient Sri Lanka once boasted of pancha ishwaram – five temples dedicated to Shiva along the coastal regions. Naguleswaram in the North, Ketheeswaram in the North West, Koneswaram in the East, Munneswaram in the West and Tondeswaram in the South. This bears testimony to the Hindu communities that once thrived here, before the invading Portuguese went on a rampage and destroyed the temples under the command of General Philippe de Oliveira. Even prior to this era, history reveals that the Nagas indulged in a form of animistic Hinduism. The great epic Ramayana makes reference to Hindus in Sri Lanka.

The Kandaswamy Kovil is bestowed with sacred art and an enduring icon of Tamil culture. For decades, this temple has been a sanctum where devotees gather in thousands. Inside, Murugan, God of war, is venerated as he makes manifestation in the form of the vel (chariot). Thereafter, a new temple was built by Puvaneka Vaahu, a Chief Minister of Kalinga Magha. This is substantiated by the records of the Yalpana Vaipaka Malai written in 1736 by the prudent poet Mailvagana Pullavar.

Divine protection

The king of Jaffna, Kalinga Magha supported the building of the temple. The capital of the Jaffna Kingdom moved from Karanthodai, Vallipuram to Nallur and Pooneryn over the decades. Years later, King Kanagasuriyan regained the kingdom and administered the temple. Many are unaware that Nallur was once the capital of Jaffna’s kings when the rajadhani was built with four gates, with a temple at each gate to invoke divine protection. The four temples were Veyilukantha Pillayar Kovil in the East, Veeramakali Amman Kovil in the West, Kailaya Vinayagar Kovil in the South and Sattanathar Kovil facing the North.

Adjacent to the rajadhani was a market place for the citizens referred to as Mithurai Santhai. There were opulent mansions for the Ministers and quarters for artisans and soldiers. Years later the warrior Cankili II, the last king of Jaffna resided near the previous temple (the remains of his small palace can be seen in ruin today). He was captured by the Portuguese and hanged in Goa, India. A statue of the mounted king stands in Jaffna, a short distance away from the Kovil. Sadly, the Nallur Temple was destroyed by General de Oliveira around 1624.

The adherents of the North remained faithful and in 1734 work began with eagerness to restore the Nallur Kovil, which was being built for the fourth time during the reign of the Dutch. The daunting task was accepted by Ragunatha Mudaliyar who worked at the Katcheri. The present land was commonly known as Kurukkal Valavu. It is said Krishna Aiyar became the first incumbent priest. The seventh custodian of the temple, Arumuga Mapaana Mudaliyar worked tirelessly to upgrade the kovil. He built the first bell tower in 1899. The fortified wall which demarcates the temple was built by him in 1909. Kumaradas Mudaliyar the 10th custodian is credited with restoring the temple to its present position as the largest Hindu Temple in Sri Lanka.

I walked inside this amazing pantheon, and saw four gopurams and six bell towers. All males must remove their shirts in keeping with ancient tradition. The variegated designs on the ceiling are brilliant. Dravidian forms of architecture originated from South India. Ancient temples were built with sandstone and granite. The Vastu Shastra describes in much detail about building temples with emphasis on spatial geometry. Every temple has a garbhagriha (Sanskrit for womb) the innermost sanctum where the statue of the primary deity is venerated. The southern side has a pond and garden (poonthotam). The temple has shrines for lord Ganesh, Vairavar and Sooriyan. Kandaswamy Kovil incorporates the iconography of Hindu cosmology. The Vedas depict time in four epochs (yugam).

The old Tamil word Koyil (residence of god) is today used as kovil. Hindu temples have their boundary wall painted in red and white. The white stripes indicate sattva guna (goodness and harmony) and red stripes indicate raja guna (passion and confusion). It is painted in this manner to remind the devotee that one must overcome life to be enlightened. As the Bhagavad Gita says “Hell has three gates: lust, anger and greed”.

Physical pain

As I gaze into the northern skyline my eyes become fixated on the Maha Raja Gopuram, a commanding nine-storeyed tower adorned with so many intricate statues. A gopuram is a monumental tower at the entrance to a temple and is topped with a kalasam, a stone finial. The temple tower reaches to the sky seeking divine union.

Sri Lankans know the splendour affiliated with the festival of the Nallur Temple in August, when multitudes of devotees gather in pious worship. I had to gently push past people to get a closer look. Some were immersed in forms of penance, enduring physical pain. The sarees of the women were a riot of colour. The fragrance of jasmine flowers and burning incense permeated the air. The ceremony begins with the ritual of kodiyetram, hoisting of the flag. The orange hue of the flag symbolizes the sun, which dispels darkness and the saffron shading depicts fire, which is a purifier. It was nice to see policemen and soldiers engaged in worship, we must sustain and cultivate our cultural and religious diversity.

The colourful festival laden with much pomp and tradition dominates the Northern peninsula for almost 25 days. I saw a mélange of poojas – pooja in Sanskrit means reverence and adoration. Commencing annually at 6.15 am, the flamboyant – Ther thiruvila – “festival of the chariot” is the highlight. Stalwarts venerate the silver throne (simmasanam) where lord Shanmuhar and his consorts are placed. The silver throne was handcrafted in 1900 by the seventh custodian. Some pious men are clad in saffron clothes a colour that symbolizes renunciation. Joyous chants of aro-hara resonate.

The pulsating drum beats are almost deafening. The throne is cheerfully carried on the shoulders of hundreds of worshippers, amid an oblation of flowers. The heavy ropes of the chariot are pulled with zeal. I felt lost in this ocean of devotees. The faith of the northern citizens was amazing. The welcoming smile of the Tamil girls and boys is a pleasant memory. That night I pondered on the power of religious influence on an entire community.